Chances are you're not really managing your systems' performance. With shortages of IT people, many shops just sort of let things happen and then respond when there's a problem. Managing is better. But how do you start, these days?
We have said before that if you want to manage anything, then you need to be able to observe its behavior. Not knowing what the managed thing is doing means you're operating blind. You cannot apply any corrections to the object, and so you're running in what is called an "open-loop" mode. Directions you give to your object are applied with no reference and no way to measure the value of the direction's result.
On the other hand, applying control (or management) to the object when you can observe the result of your control means that you can bring the object's performance into line with what you want. If you want your car to go down the right-hand land of a four-lane highway, you observe the direction the car is going, and apply corrections to bring the car's direction into line with your desire.
For Windows-based computers, the explanation is a bit more complex than it is for cars, but the approach is basically the same. Know what the system is doing, then apply corrective measures if the system performance isn't going the way you want.
In Windows, whether you're talking about a server or a workstation, the easiest tool to use for observing the performance of the system is the performance monitor.
Now, you can buy several programs from a number of vendors that will monitor your systems' performance automatically and then send the information they get to a central server, where the data will be stored and can be called up for analysis at your leisure.
Performance management on a budget
Enterprise performance management programs cost a lot of money, and in these days of tight IT budgets (well, let's face it…tight budgets in general) you might want to do performance management on a less-expensive basis. And you can't get a more inexpensive operation than perfmon, which comes gratis with Windows.
How do you do that?
The easiest way to get to Performance Monitor is simply to type perfmon into the Run dialog box. Or you can go to Start/settings/control panel and click on the Administrative Tools. This will open another window, where you'll find the Performance icon. Clicking on that icon will get you the basic Performance Monitor screen, which doesn't give you much, really. It's a part of the Microsoft Management Console (MMC), and as such it's just one of several consoles that you can use to manage aspects of your systems (either local or remote). This one is bare when you first open it, and so it's probably here, where the program first comes up, that many people who have had only a passing interest in monitoring performance shrug their shoulders and move on to some more pressing pursuit.
The thing to do is right click in the right-hand, or detail, pane. There will be two panes shown in the basic UI, a tree view on the left and the gray detail pane on the right. When you right-click on the right-hand pane, you get a context menu. One of the choices you see is Add Counters.
You monitor performance with the counters. There's quite an array of counters to look at, but it takes a bit of exploring to see all of them. There's a drop-down menu on the add-counters dialog that lets you select the object that you want to monitor. Objects include such things as the processor, which comes up as the default in the add counters dialog, but there's also IP traffic, for example, and the physical disk on the system. So if you're having a problem with IP traffic to one of your workstations, for example, open that drop-down box and select IP.
Underneath the drop-down there is a list of the various counters that are associated with the object you select. In that list you highlight the counter you want (in the case of the IP object, for instance, it might be datagrams) and click the add button. You'll see that the logging has started, as a vertical red bar is moving across the details pane, and there's a trace being drawn, indicating instantaneous performance of the counter you picked.
That's great, but don't stop there. You really need to watch performance over a period of time to see if there are trends, if some event is causing trouble, etc. For that you need to log the performance counters.
How to log performance counters
In the tree view, you'll notice there's something called performance logs and alerts. Right click on counter logs, and a context menu gives you the choice to define new log settings. Clicking here yields a dialog that lets you set the parameters of the log file you need. You go through the add counter dialog to set up the counter you want to log, then use the other tabs in the dialog to set up start and stop and define the characteristics of the log file. You can then examine your log file or files at your leisure to see how things are going.
What if something goes really wrong? Suppose that the disk on a server is starting to slow down and applications are starting to see overly long waits to write data. If that's an e-commerce system, it could cost big bucks. So you want to get an alert if that's the case.
Perfmon will do that for you, too. Right-click on Alerts in the tree view, and you get a context-sensitive menu, one choice of which lets you define a new alert. Again, you have to add counters, and to do that you get the same set of choices of objects and counters to monitor. So in the case of the disk above, you'd select physical disk from the objects drop-down menu, and Avg. disk bytes/write from the counters list. Click add and close in the add dialog, and you get back to the alert dialog. Set a limit, based on your experience, and click OK. The alert function starts as soon as you do that.
Or you can go to the action tab, and define what you want perfmon to do (like send you a network message when the disk gets too slow). You can also go to the schedule tab to start the alert monitor at a selected time or manually.
If you'd like to start logging automatically when the computer starts up, see this tip -- Setup a Performance Monitor log using a binary circular log file on SearchWin2000.com, our sister site, which gives step-by-step instructions for starting the a binary circular log file on boot up.
Make sure, by the way, that you are in author mode (you will be if you're the administrator). Otherwise, your changes may not take effect. You can stop users from getting into the MMC in author mode by selecting Console/options on the perfmon menu bar.
This discussion has only scratched the surface of the things you can do with perfmon to manage performance of your systems, whether it's the local system you're working on, or another on your network. While the packaged applications that we've already talked about will do this all for you, using perfmon for many of your system-monitoring chores can be as effective -- and can save you some money in the bargain.
About the author: David Gabel is the executive technology editor for TechTarget.
This was first published in October 2002